Chapter X: Dying Embers
"D'you think they'll come around soon?"
"I don't know, Radar. We just have to wait and see."
The whispering voices, their owners unseen, floated over Houlihan at a level somewhere above her head. Given that reference point, she had to be lying on her back, but she wasn't sure when or how she'd gotten into that position. Last thing she could remember was....
Keeping her eyes closed as a buffer against full wakefulness, she reviewed her most recent memories. Running to the shed, sticking her hand in the generator like a prize idiot, latching onto the wire and then onto Mulcahy, and.... Well, after that things got kind of murky, but she recalled enough to warrant a rueful sigh.
"Hey, I think he's waking up!"
That voice was Corporal O'Reilly's. Seconds later, a cool hand alighted on her forehead and she heard Trapper McIntyre's voice in her ear. "You awake, Father?"
Huh?Somebody definitely had their wires crossed. "I'm awake, McIntyre," she rasped, "but I'm not your damn father."
In the extended silence that followed, Houlihan opened her eyes to see that she was in post-op, with the two of them staring at her, comically open-mouthed.
"Holy cow!" exclaimed the clerk, tugging at McIntyre's sleeve. "That's Major Houlihan!"
Irritated, she propped herself up on her elbows. "Of course I'm...."
Then it hit her.
They had been expecting to find Mulcahy in her body, but instead -- she was herself again!
"I'm...." A smile spread across her face as she sat up to look, touch, and verify, and then she burst out laughing in sheer relief. "I am Major Houlihan!"
McIntyre and O'Reilly were happy to join in the celebration, but McIntyre wouldn't let her get up until he had given her a thorough medical once-over.
The instant he pronounced her fit, Houlihan, still buoyant, sprang out of bed and hugged both him and a blushing O'Reilly. "So...where is Father Mulcahy?" she asked. "I'm assuming he doesn't know yet?"
"Still unconscious," answered McIntyre, pointing along the row of beds. Most of them were empty, many of the wounded having already been evacuated to other facilities. "Over there. We didn't want to risk putting you too close together."
Looking over at the chaplain's motionless form, seeing it from the correct perspective for the first time in two weeks, Houlihan's mood sobered. "Corporal, what happened? How did we end up in post-op?"
As if on cue, McIntyre engineered a tactful withdrawal from their company, and O'Reilly looked down at the floor, seemingly reluctant to speak of the incident. "I don't know exactly what happened, ma'am -- I can only tell you what I saw."
Not wanting to frighten off the sole witness, she kept her tone soft and undemanding. "Please. I don't remember much of it, and I hate not knowing."
"Um...well, you know -- you and Father Mulcahy wouldn't let go of the wire, so I was watching to make sure nothing bad happened. At first, things were okay, but then he...I mean you...uh, you guys got real close together, and then it was like you didn't see me or hear me or even know I was there. I tried yelling for help, but nobody came, and you'd told me not to leave you alone...."
"It's all right," she said gently. "You did the right thing, not leaving."
"Thank you, ma'am. Anyways, I couldn't get your attention, but you didn't seem to be in trouble or in pain or anything. Kinda the opposite of pain, is what it looked like."
"Go on," she prompted when he paused, his face flushed from recalling what he'd seen.
"So I waited and watched, and nothing really changed for almost an hour. Then, just like that, you both got real quiet -- like, not even breathing -- and next thing I know the lights were off again and you and him were passed out on the floor."
"We only kept the power on for an hour?" Houlihan couldn't help feeling a little disappointed. That wouldn't have been nearly enough time for the surgeons to make it through all those casualties.
"Oh, but not too much later I got the backup generator running," O'Reilly said with a shy grin. "After you showed her how it was done, the ol' gal started right up, no problem!"
Houlihan chuckled. To think that such a long shot had actually paid off! And with dividends, she reminded herself, twining a long lock of her own blonde hair around her finger.
"That's about all there is to tell. When I couldn't wake you, I ran to get help, and Captain McIntyre had you both brought into post-op, and you've been here ever since."
She smiled and touched his shoulder. "Thank you, Radar. For everything." It was rare that Houlihan addressed the clerk so informally, but she wanted to impress upon him that her gratitude was sincere.
"Uh...you're welcome," he said, looking surprised but pleased. "If that's all, ma'am, there's some work I should be getting back to...."
"Of course. On your way out, would you let Captain McIntyre know I'll be sitting with Father Mulcahy for a while, if that's all right?"
"Yes, ma'am." He was already retreating. "I'm sure it'll be okay."
Her smile lingered as she watched him go. Sometimes O'Reilly could be an annoying little busybody -- and was too often on the receiving end of her temper because of it -- but his heart was in the right place. A good kid.
She dragged a folding chair in close to Mulcahy's bed and settled down to wait. With post-op now almost deserted, save for a handful of recovering patients and Lieutenant Klein, the nurse on duty, wrestling with paperwork at the desk across the room, Houlihan had relative privacy in which to let her thoughts drift. So much had happened in such a short time that she hadn't really begun to process it all yet.
Now that she was back where she belonged, thinking back on the past couple of weeks was like remembering a fever-dream. There was an aspect of unreality -- or at least surreality -- that made it difficult to square the experience with what she knew of real life.
As Mulcahy slept, she studied his face, now almost as familiar to her as her own. The face she'd seen in the mirror every day for a fortnight. A face she'd had to learn how to shave. But when she tried to imagine herself looking out at the world through his eyes, she found that her memory of that perspective was already fading. Which was, she decided, probably for the best.
In one sense, staring at him like this was reassuring -- tangible proof that things were back to normal, everyone in their proper place. But at the back of her mind, Houlihan felt vaguely unsettled. Nothing she could put her finger on, but it was as if she somehow understood things about this man that she was never meant to know.
Maybe that feeling would also fade with time.
And then there was that other thing.... Eventually, though she fought to stave it off, curiosity gained the upper hand and, flicking a glance over her shoulder to make sure Klein wasn't watching, she reached out to touch Mulcahy's cheek.
Nothing. Not even a hint of the thrilling little tingle remained. Once again, her emotions were divided -- wasn't this discovery cause for relief and not the melancholy ache that tugged at her insides?
Houlihan withdrew her hand when he stirred under her touch. Soon after, unfocused blue eyes opened, blinking in the light, and Mulcahy turned his head in her direction.
When he displayed no reaction, she belatedly remembered that without his glasses, he couldn't see much past the end of his nose. Wearing the damn things had annoyed the heck out of her, but they served a necessary purpose. She spotted them lying on a trunk at the head of the bed and offered them to him.
With his sight restored, a smile blossomed on Mulcahy's face as he maneuvered to sit on the edge of the bed, never taking his eyes off her. "Is it you?" was the tentatively voiced question.
"It's me," she confirmed, flashing a smile to match his.
"Then I'm...?" Amused, Houlihan watched him perform the same reflexive pat-down that had also been her first response. After so much time away from one's own body, she supposed the need for verification was only natural. "Oh, my, how wonderful!" he laughed. "But how did this happen?"
After waving off Klein, who was heading over to check on Mulcahy now that he was awake, she relayed what O'Reilly had told her.
When she admitted that no one was sure exactly what had undone the switch, Mulcahy pondered the question for a moment. "Perhaps the charge we had was what kept us stuck where we were, and we depleted it by standing in for the generator. Like draining a battery. And once it was gone, the transfer could simply reverse itself."
"Not a bad theory," said Houlihan. "I haven't come up with any better ones. But I guess we'll never know the whole story."
"It seems unlikely," he agreed. "Unless we encounter our captors again, which is a meeting I'd just as soon avoid."
She grinned. "You and me both."
They sat in companionable silence as Houlihan allowed the chaplain a little time to stare at her as she had done him, understanding the importance of the visual reaffirmation. She wondered if he was getting the same feeling of unearned intimacy that she got when she looked at him. His thoughtful expression indicated that he might be.
"Major," he finally said, "may I ask you something? You don't have to answer if it's too personal."
Instinct told her to brace herself, but she kept her tone light. "You're kidding, right? After what we've been through, how could a mere question be too personal?"
"Point taken," he chuckled. Then the thoughtful look returned. "This might sound silly to you, but I have the strangest sense that you and I...well, it's almost a sense that our souls have touched."
Houlihan drew a sharp breath. With that description, he'd probably hit on the closest thing to the truth they were ever going to get; her memories of last night, though fragmentary and indistinct, seemed to support it.
"And I wanted to ask if you sensed anything similar?"
"Yes," she admitted softly. "Very similar."
"I must confess, it troubles me." He looked away, fiddling with his sleeve cuff in the familiar nervous tic. "Yet one more element binding us closer than we ought to be -- than we have a right to be. Major, I consider you a dear friend, particularly of late, and I have no wish to continue avoiding your company, but...."
Houlihan wasn't sure she'd caught all the nuances of what he was trying to say, but she got the gist of it: the more drawn to her he felt, the less he trusted himself. A dilemma with which she could readily empathize. "That may not be necessary," she said, holding out her hands, palms up, in invitation.
With some reluctance, Mulcahy placed his own atop them, and then shot her a look of astonishment when he realized there would be no tingle forthcoming. "It's gone?"
"Looks like the spark's gone out of our relationship," she teased. "Fits pretty well with your dead battery theory, doesn't it?"
The color in his cheeks darkened a shade or two as he released her hands. "Yes, well...I suppose that was to be expected."
They held each other's gaze for a long while, and though she was no mind reader, Houlihan imagined that their thoughts were traveling along similar lines. What-ifs...might-have-beens...roads not taken....
What if, indeed?
Of course, such speculation was ultimately useless, because it was understood without having to speak of it that from this point forward, their lives would go on much as before. There was no other workable option.
She would continue to serve as one of the finest nurses in the U.S. military, skilled and confident, and would either regain Frank's affections or win those of someone more worthy.
He would resume his vocation as one of the finest priest-chaplains in the Asian theater, kind-hearted and compassionate, with a hidden core of steel but without a wife or lover.
To each other, they would simply be close friends -- who once shared a bit more closeness than most -- and that would have to be enough.
Once more, she extended her hand. "Welcome back, Father. You've been missed."
Mulcahy's delighted smile as he accepted the handshake warmed her almost as thoroughly as any hit of synthetic electricity. "As have you, Major. Welcome home."
It would be enough.